Ferrari California

It’s the prancing horse’s first folding hard-top and first front-engined V8. Is newcomer worthy of the badge?

FOR Ferrari purists, the California came as something of a shock.

How could a manufacturer famed for the performance and handling of its products really countenance the weight of a metal roof over a fabric one? And could the firm that has built some of the most beautiful cars ever manage to create an attractive shape, while packaging folded hard-top panels in the rear?

The California debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 2008, and has been a huge success story. It’s inspired by the eye-wateringly beautiful 250 California of 1957, and was designed to offer the same mix of sports car performance and grand tourer comfort.

Thanks to the bulging rear arches and an aggressive shoulder line, which blends sharply into the door, Ferrari has cleverly disguised the flat rear deck needed to accommodate the folded roof. At the back, the high-mounted lights, sculpted tail and stacked exhausts all cleverly combine to mask the large rump. The end result is not classically beautiful, although it has plenty of presence.

The pair of roof panels are made of aluminium to keep the weight down, and they fold away in just over 17 seconds. Plus, with the roof in place, the curved side pillars, sloping rear glass and raked windscreen mean the California looks as good as a coupé should. Inside, you can choose between a two-seat version, with a traditional luggage bench in the back, or a 2+2 variant that provides a tiny pair of rear seats, with Isofix child seat mountings.

Whichever you go for, the bulkhead folds to allow longer items to be carried, while boot capacity increases from 240 litres to 340 litres when the roof is raised. It’s when you get behind the wheel that the California begins to feel truly amazing, though.

This is the first Ferrari with a front-mounted V8 – the engine sits behind the axle – and the driving experience doesn’t disappoint. Press the start button on the steering wheel, and the all-aluminium powerplant barks into life. It has direct injection and variable-valve timing, and delivers 75 per cent of its torque at only 2,250rpm, so the California offers huge power across its extensive rev range.

The exhaust note is intoxicating, but the 453bhp unit’s colossal performance means you find yourself reaching for the paddleshifters to change gear early rather than using all the revs, so as not to break the speed limit. The dual-clutch box – Ferrari’s first – is rapid and smooth.

It’s engineered to feel sporty and adds to the experience, as does the established steering wheel-mounted manettino control lever.

The latter lets drivers adjust the gearbox, stability control and suspension settings, switching between Comfort and Sport modes – or even fully disengaging the stability system – all at the flick of a switch. Select Sport, and the gearbox takes on a more aggressive character, while the traction control provides more freedom to exploit the chassis. However, with the £3,132 Magneride suspension fitted, when you switch to Comfort, the dual-mode dampers give the California a relaxing ride.

This really is a Ferrari that you can live with every day – it’s refined on the motorway, even with the roof folded, and easy to drive slowly around town.

Yet don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a lazy cruiser; it’s still a sports car at heart.

With light but very positive steering, it turns into corners enthusiastically. The suspension is relatively soft and there is some roll across the rear axle, but body movement is controlled well and there’s lots of grip. Fast, adaptable and packed with character, the California is a great all-rounder – and a true Ferrari.

Details

WHY: Is this the most versatile Ferrari ever? The California is a GT, a sports car and a convertible all in one.

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